Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Tell My Girlfriend About My Disease?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am a long time reader of your blog and I would like to thank you for all your good advice. I have pretty much all the general nerd problems when trying to find a girlfriend, and you seem to tackle all of them in your articles.

However I have an additional problem that is added to the usual problems. And that problem is, I have a chronic illness. It is not really noticeable now, but it will get worse over time, since it is progressive. It is slowly attacking my nerves, and I might even end up in a wheelchair.

I really want a long term relationship, so this is something my hypothetical future girlfriend will have to deal with. And therein lies the problem.

First of all: How and when do I tell her about my disease? Too early, and she would probably run away. Too late and she would think I am dishonest. All the advice I could find on relationships and chronic illnesses is about dealing with it when you already have a partner.

Secondly, a guy who also has the disease told me that he failed to take into account when he got the disease, his girlfriend also ‘got it’. It cost him his relationship. I am not convinced girls see me as good boyfriend material anyway, and adding this illness to it only makes it worse. I feel like I would be complicating a persons life,and I hate that.

I hope you can give me some sound advice,

Uncertain Future

DEAR UNCERTAIN FUTURE: This is a tough one, UF, because there aren’t really any easy answers. I’m not going to lie: you’re going to have a harder time than most when it comes to long-term relationships. A chronic illness, especially one that may necessitate a partner becoming a caregiver, can be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. It can be a pretty damned high price of admission for most people. Many people can handle the IDEA of a chronic condition, especially a potentially debilitating one, when it’s off in the theoretical future. When it becomes a part of their day-to-day reality… some people realize too late that they just can’t handle it.

However, difficult doesn’t mean impossible. There are people out there, men and women who have the strength to love someone even knowing that one day that their partner may face serious health issues. One of my friends was dating a woman with multiple sclerosis. When she explained to him about her disease and what it could potentially mean for her, he thought about it and said “Guess we’re going to have to make sure any house we live in is handicapped accessible.” They’ve been married for several years now and are expecting a second child in the next few months.

In general, I’m a fan of early disclosure with most issues, whether it’s kinks or health issues or relationship preferences. However, dropping the progressive-illness bomb on someone early on will probably scare people away… even people who might have the strength and the courage to face it once they’ve become more invested in you and your relationship together. At the same time, you don’t want to spring it long after the two of you have gotten serious; she’s going to feel as though she had been lied to.

So here’s what I suggest: bring it up sooner rather than later, but before the two of you become serious. Personally, I’d disclose before sex enters the equation, but you definitely need to have it before someone drops the “L-word”. If you’re reaching the point that you’re starting to consider exclusivity and you haven’t brought this up, then it’s time to have The Talk. You want to give her the low-down on what you have and what it could potentially mean.


As I always say, it’s about presentation. You don’t want to treat this as something shameful or something horrific. This is part of what makes you, you after all, and presumably it’s that you she’s fallen in love with. So you re-frame the situation. It’s part of who you are, something that’s shaped your world view and made you the person you are today. It’s made you appreciate the little things and take the long view. You’ve learned to savor life all the more and how to live to the fullest.

Will some people still balk? Yes, probably. But at the same time: these are not people you want to be in a long-term relationship with. It’s going to suck at times, but you’re going to be better off in the long-run. When you find someone who not only loves you but has the inner strength to stand by you when things progress… well, that’s when you know you’ve found someone amazing, and that sort of person is well worth the time and energy it takes to find.

Good luck.

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: This question came up when I ended my first relationship a few weeks ago. He was the one to initiate the breakup, and although he apologized quickly about his end before we broke up, I was feeling pretty raw on the inside and I was unable to talk to him about what had happened between us at all. We spoke to each other a few times before college ended in mid-June, but never about the relationship. Now I’m in another country and he’s working in a different city so I don’t think I will be able to see him in person until school starts in late September… if it even does. Today, I sent him an apology of around 200 words through e-mail and I wanted to know what I did in the apology that was okay and what I did that wasn’t okay.

1) I first told him that the reason this sorry came late was because for a while, I wasn’t ready to talk to him about anything that had happened between us.

2) I was sorry about the way I acted in the relationship and the emotional burden I placed on him.

3) I admitted that I was going through a lot of unrelated stress and I didn’t know how much I was hurting him, but that didn’t excuse the fact that I hurt him or made him feel uncomfortable.

4) I am taking full responsibility for my actions and accepting whatever comes next.

I have lots of questions. If we were on polite speaking terms, should I still have apologized? Is it wrong or too late to apologize a month and a half after the relationship ended? 

Did I do it wrong? If I did, what’s the right way to apologize? Is the reason to apologize because you know you hurt that person or because you feel guilty or both? I feel like I was doing this because I wanted to take responsibility for what happened as well. I’m okay with however he replies: if he severs contact with me, that’s fine as well. I just know that I want to be honest and I don’t want to be the person who blames what went wrong on other people. The only reason I didn’t apologize earlier was because I was in a state of emotional shock. I had various feelings including wanting to beg him to take me back, some anger, and definite regret, but I was pretty calm with him whenever I spoke to him. So this is one of those situations where the uncertainty is killing me and I have no idea what to do or how to feel. Help me Doctor! How can I make apologies worth it?


Awkward Apologizing A

DEAR AWKWARD APOLOGIZING A: Let’s see: you took your time to collect your thoughts and examine your feelings before you contacted him so you could be as calm and objective as you could. You explained your side of things, how you felt and took responsibility for the things you said and did. You kept it brief and you did it in a way that gives him a chance to think on things and doesn’t put him on the spot to reply right away.

Really, as far as apologies go, that’s pretty much textbook perfect.

I don’t necessarily believe in the need for apologies after a break-up; they can be nice to have, but they’re hardly a requirement. Sometimes they can be well-meaning but end up making things worse – I’ve seen plenty of “coming clean” apologies that would’ve been better off remaining unsaid, but the apologizer decided that unloading his or her guilt was more important than sparing their ex pain. This is part of why I advocate the nuclear option in break-ups; sometimes the best thing is to just cut ties and wait for time and perspective to work their magic.

In the end it depends ultimately on what your intentions are. Were you hoping to mend some open wounds in the hopes of staying on good terms with your ex and salvaging a friendship in the future? Were you hoping to get the emotional upper hand in the breakup? Were you hoping to get back together? Sort that out in your head and you’ll understand more about how you feel.

Good luck.

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